New Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny greets French Cardinal Dominique Mamberti during a consistory led by Pope Francis for the creation of 13 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 5, 2019. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorial: A new shepherd

  • October 10, 2019

Canada’s newest cardinal insists he has no idea why the Pope of surprises invited him, a priest, to enter the College of Cardinals. But to anyone familiar with the resume of Cardinal Michael Czerny, the answer seems obvious.

Two weeks after being elected Pope, Francis encouraged his priests to bring God’s healing grace to the needy, to seek out those who suffer and are forgotten, and to “be shepherds living with the smell of sheep.” 

Czerny’s priestly life has personified that call to be a shepherd who walks with the downtrodden and persecuted. He is cut from the Francis mould.

Thus Czerny, 73, went to lunch on Oct. 4 as a priest, sat down to dinner that evening as a bishop and took lunch the next day as a cardinal. He found time to celebrate one Mass wearing the mitre of a bishop before replacing it within hours for a cardinal’s red biretta. It was an extraordinary 18-hour metamorphosis, which, if not the quickest in modern history, must have come close to it.

For Christians, indifference towards those who suffer is not an option, preaches Pope Francis. People who are marginalized by society have “faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such,” he says. They deserve dignity and respect and, above all, deserve to be wrapped in a Christian embrace of compassion and mercy.

Throughout his pontificate, Francis has preferred cardinals who exhibit those traits. And the net he casts is wide. Rather than seeking new cardinals mostly from the world’s larger dioceses, as tradition has prescribed, his selections reflect a more universal Church. 

Under Francis, the number of nations represented in the College of Cardinals has ballooned from 48 to 68, with many new cardinals coming from places the Church itself has tended to overlook.

Promoting the Canadian Czerny isn’t by itself novel, but by looking past his bishops and elevating a priest to the rank of cardinal Francis has again shown an affection for the unconventional and his wish for a Church that reflects the Christian obligation to the poor and the suffering. 

It’s a call Czerny has heeded throughout his priestly life.

Whether launching a social justice ministry in Toronto, volunteering to serve the oppressed during El Salvador’s civil war, ministering to AIDS victims in Africa or advocating for refugee causes at the Vatican, Czerny has embodied the compassion of a Church which, he says, must stand with those who “have little reason to hope or have had hope driven out of them.” His priestly ministry has been about bringing comfort to the suffering, justice to the oppressed and dignity to the forgotten.

Pope Francis obviously was serious six years ago when he suggested he wanted priests with the smell of sheep. Czerny was that type of priest. 

Expect him now to be that type of cardinal.

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